Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Volver, Pedro Almodovar, Spain 2006

Having recently watched Almodovar's latest offering, Broken Embraces - which didn't really do it for me - inspired me to take another look at his previous film, Volver.
Volver, which loosely translates into return or come back, is indeed a return in several ways: first, it is a return to the best of Almodovar; this ‘earthy’, unpretentious, personal, heartfelt film is reminiscent of some of his best work, such as, for instance, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It is also a return for Penelope Cruz, Volver marking her third collaboration with Almodovar, the first after seven years. Lastly, the title alludes to the return of Raimunda’s mother, Irene, and to their return to the village Raimunda grew up in. Almodovar, who was raised in a village in the La Mancha region, pits the village against the city, with the latter faring badly, depicted as it is as an ugly, impersonal, urban hell. However, in spite of a certain nostalgia, Almodovar knows better than dabbling in stereotypes as straying husbands are not relegated to the big city. Nor is child abuse.

Volver, the tango, also stands at the centre of the film, hammering it home in a hauntingly elegiac ballad, beautifully sung by Cruz, that return is essentially what Volver, the film, is all about. Like in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, men – straight or gay - have little room in Almodovar’s world, which is primarily a women’s world where men are intruders at best, child molesters at worst. Volver is, at heart, a celebration of motherhood in its truest form. Coming out of the film makes you want to burrow your head in your mother’s bosom, and feast at her table, gobble down her wholesome, hearty, home-cooked meal after weeks of living on fast-food fare. Almodovar’s voluptuous earth-mothers are loyal Amazons abounding with vigour, sticking up for each other and generating energy like the omnipresent windmills that are ruining La Mancha’s serene landscape. On film, until now this city warrior who crawled out of the woodwork, had found her most sincere personification in Anna Magnani’s earth-bound, uncouth, strong, hands-on Roman mamas, notably in Visconti’s Bellissima, which Almodovar has Maura’s Irene watching in admiration, although we know that she’s really watching her daughter, Cruz’s Raimunda, who is Magnani’s 21st century counterpart.

But it wouldn’t be an Almodovar film if there wasn’t a reference to a Hollywood classic in it somewhere, and with classic Hollywood being short on hands-on, uncouth earth-mothers, he opted for Mildred Pierce, in which Joan Crawford plays a rags-to-riches mother who, by sheer determination and willpower, becomes the successful owner of a restaurant chain. According to the lore, in her private life Crawford herself was quite the opposite of Mildred: not a loving and caring mother, but a frantic, self-centred dragon, whose obsession with cleanliness drove her daughter Christina to distraction. An ironic twist which, I’m sure, isn’t lost on any self-respecting film-buff.

Volver is out on DVD.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Death Becomes Her, Robert Zemeckis, USA 1992

Death Becomes Her remains one of my all-time favourite comedies, whose blatantly camp, black humour, never fails to make me laugh like few other comedies do.

At the centre of this farce stands a quintessential Hollywood diva of a certain age who in her steadfast refusal to face the facts by intending to stop the ageing process “dead in its tracks and forcing it into retreat”, ends up, tragically, as one of the many “living dead of Beverly Hills”. It is right here where Death Becomes Her strikes a much more serious, much darker, and much more ironic, note than one is led to believe, for on the surface Zemeckis’ offering could easily be written off as yet another special effects extravaganza. But with its insinuations to real life -society’s increasing fixation with youth, the increasing plastic surgery mania - the film often has the effect of making you choke on your laughs.

Death Becomes Her deservedly won an Oscar for its special effects, which were truly breathtaking for its time and which Zemeckis uses carefully and sensibly and never gratuitously as they are always expertly woven into the story. In fact, you’re never quite sure what’s more astounding: the special effects bonanza, the razor-sharp dialogues, or the mastery of Meryl Streep, who in her role as the washed-up screen siren Madeline Ashton pulls all the stops and brings a new meaning to the word ‘camp’. In fact, her wisecracks in this film just have you laughing out loud. She’s absolutely hilarious!

The sets and the costumes are a vital element in the film, and both are designed to underline the film’s surreal, gothic undercurrent. Take Isabelle Rossellini, for example, as Lisl von Rhoman, wearing an outlandish creation consisting of a parure of beads and rhinestones with a sort of pareo skilfully wrapped around her hips. Zemeckis of course plays on Rossellini's past as one of the world's highest paid fashion and beauty models. As the face of Lancome, Rossellini's career lasted well into her forties, which makes her role in Death Becomes Her - as a peddler of eternal youth and beauty - all the more intriguing.

After her miraculous rejuvenation Streep’s Madeline Ashton makes a sensational entrance in black leggings, a turquoise see-through chemise and a pair of fuck-me-heels – all designed to win back the lover she lost to a younger girl. But no sooner has she left her room than her furious husband is pushing her down the stairs - in a fall that is artificially prolonged, highlighting the film’s surreal tinge - which subsequently turns her into the ‘living dead’ she and all her fellow plastic-surgery-fiends are fated to become. The costumes are matched by outstanding sets and props, which again underline the film’s surreal and gothic undercurrent reminiscent of films like Blade Runner, Metropolis, and, also, very fittingly, a famous commercial Jean-Baptiste Mondino made in 1990 for the launch of Chanel's fragrance Egoiste. Moreover, Lisl’s mansion and Madeline’s fortress-like home with its extremely high staircase, also call to mind films like Nosferatu, Faust or Der müde Tod (Destiny).

Another element in Death Becomes Her that strikes a familiar tone is the music, which incidentally is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Psycho. However, although certain elements in Zemeckis' film are certainly borrowed, he clearly uses them to pay homage rather than just blatantly stealing from other films. Zemeckis's use of these - borrowed - elements is clever and thoughtful, as he ultimately turns it all into something new and makes them his own. With the help of an equally witty script and a brilliant mise-en-scène (e.g. the three nuns who seems to be hovering rather than walking), not to mention his exquisite cast, notably Streep and Goldie Hawn playing her nemesis, Zemeckis came up with a highly original, camp, black comedy, which unfortunately and undeservedly, at the time of its release, was written off as just another special effects comedy by most critics.

"Can you remember where I parked the car ...?"

Saturday, 19 December 2009

All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1950

As far as films are concerned, the year 1950 may well go down in history as the birth of Camp. The same year Bette Davis graced the silver screen in her unforgettable portrayal of Margo Channing, Gloria Swanson made her comeback in the equally memorable role of the deranged silent movie siren Norma Desmond. Both actresses deservedly received Oscar nods, but while neither Davis nor Swanson probably wouldn’t have minded losing out to the other, they, as much as everybody else, were dumbstruck when Judy Holliday of all people walked away with the coveted statuette!

"I may have seen better times, but I'm not to be had for the price of a cocktail, like a salted peanut ...!"

All About Eve, like all other films that made it in the AFI’s top 100 list, has been discussed and written about to death, and one begins to wonder indeed if there’s anything left that hasn’t been said yet. There even is a whole book about the film, called All About All About Eve, written by Sam Staggs, who also wrote a similar one on Sunset Boulevard. As it stands, I won’t even attempt to say anything new, but simply try to explain why this film in particular strikes such a chord with me.

This takes us way back to the time when I saw the film for the very first time in 1984, which, luckily, was when it was on its re-release, enabling me to see it on the big screen. I recall having been absolutely mesmerized and spellbound by Bette Davis performance. Not only could I totally relate to her character in every possible way – but I also identified with her. Let’s face it, which gay man doesn’t share her feelings of jealousy and inadequacy, yet wishes to have that very same wit, that ability to be dramatic without being pathetic? I firmly believe that many a gay man has an unvoiced - or in some cases perhaps voiced - desire to be a little bit like Margo, and most definitely craves to have a mother like her – or if not a mother, at least a best friend. Which, really, is the next best thing.

"Fasten your seat belts, it's gonna be a bumpy night!"

I think, I became Margo Channing – at least for a while. I tried, anyway. I didn’t get very far, though. But still, every now and then traits, one-liners of Margo would make it into a conversation, giving me the chance to turn into my idol for a minute or two, feeling sorry for myself without feeling guilty: Margo made it alright! She was the big sister, the ally, watching me from her corner, invisibly, understandingly, as I stole one of her lines and made it my own in a puny, doleful moment when I felt “unwanted or insecure – or unloved.”

Now, remember, that was long before I even knew that Bette Davis, let alone All About Eve had a gay following. I hadn’t even heard of the word camp yet. I was just a greenhorn from small-town Germany who was in the middle of his coming-out. Therefore, rest assured, my infatuation with Margo, my desire to be like her, can be written off as a rite of passage … … or can it? Well, I still secretly wish I had a portion of her nonchalance, her wit, her bitchiness, not to mention her talent, in me to keep up my defences – it certainly wouldn’t hurt! Other than that, what remains is a deep affinity for strong, quick-witted, fast-talking dames, which evidently was awakened by watching Margo flitting across the screen on her imaginary broom stick on her way to the snake pit.

"Miss Casswell, a graduate from the Copacabana School of Dramatic Arts"

I’m feeling slightly guilty, reducing All About Eve to the character of Margo – which, of course, you can’t. Nevertheless, she dominates the screen. Eve without Margo is unthinkable just as it is entirely unthinkable to imagine her part played by somebody other than Bette Davis. Bette Davis always claimed that she was not Margo, and that the reason why her marriage to Gary Merrill fell apart was because he married Margo and woke up with Bette Davis. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling that there was certainly more of Margo in Bette than she cared to admit. Or perhaps it is just wishful thinking on my part, my wanting her to have been like Margo, for Margo is too fascinating a character not to exist in reality.

"Stop treating me like I'm the Queen Mother!"

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Book Review: The Sundance Kids - How The Mavericks Took Over Hollywood by James Mottram

Mottram's book is an in-depth, fascinating account about the new generation of American film-makers and how the Sundance Film Festival often proved a launching pad for their careers.

Primarily focussing on Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Quentin Tarantino, Paul-Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Alexander Payne, Mottram examines how their backgrounds and biographies fed into their future careers as 'auteurs'. Mottram also demonstrates how for the majority of theses film-makers it wasn't the training received at a film school that made and shaped them, but rather the influence the films of their forebears - 'New Hollywood' directors such as Scorsese or Coppola - had on them. In this respect directors like Anderson, Tarantino, or Soderbergh can be compared to their peers of the Nouvelle Vague as for directors like Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard it also was the countless hours spent at the Cinematheque, in addition to their passion for film, which replaced the formal training a film school would have afforded them.

Mottram begins his book in 1989 when Soderbergh received the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Soderbergh's triumph was a watershed in American cinema as his film, which had previously been shown at Sundance, marked the beginning of a new era, or put differently, it put American Independent film-making on the map. Sex, Lies, and Videotape is closely associated with the rise of Miramax: made for a pittance, owing to the coverage Soderbergh's film received following his win at Cannes, it made the company millions.

Telling his account chronologically starting in 1989, Mottram discusses key films shown at the Sundance Film Festival by homing in on the films by the directors named above. While his selection may seem random at first sight, upon closer inspection and reflection it quickly becomes evident that many promising talents that emerged from Sundance, only some of them managed to turn that initial success into a lasting career. For instance, following their success at Sundance, directors such as Alison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell or Tom DiCillo have had trouble following up on it. But, as Mottram makes clear in his book, besides proving that they're able to deliver at the box-office, lasting success in Hollywood requires a director to compromise as the studios have long caught on to the allure - and the big bucks - of so-called independent cinema, and thus the boundaries between independent and mainstream film-making have become increasingly blurred since Soderbergh first walked away with the Palme d'Or. Thus, Mottram's book is also a story of how independent American films and film-makers evolved as, today many films that are generally perceived as independent are, in fact, made with involvement from a major studio.

Mottram's book is an engrossing read, excellently researched, with a sharp and critical eye on all the films he discusses. But the best thing about it is that Mottram's passion for his topic is palpable on every page.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Berlinale 2010: First Competition Titles Announced

The Berlin Film Festival has just announced the first seven (out of twenty-six) films to be screened in the festival's main section, although only six of them will compete for the Grand Prix, or Golden Bear, named after the symbol of the City of Berlin.

It seems, that to celebrate the fest's 60th anniversary, the festival director Dieter Kosslick and his team took great pains to assemble a maximum number of high profile titles by some of the world's most celebrated directors including Roman Polanski and Martin Scorsese. While it had been rumoured that Polanski's film, the Ghost, would premier at the fest - after all, the film was shot in and around Berlin - it was doubtful given the director's recent arrest in Switzerland, that post-production would be completed in time for the festival opening.

It is the second world premiere for Martin Scorsese to be held at the Berlin Film Festival after the much hyped and talked about screening of his Rolling Stones documentary, Shine a Light, two years ago. However, like his previous Berlinale main section entry, Shutter Island, too, will be screened out of competition.

The main section/ competition line-up so far:

Bal (Honey) Turkey / Germany
by Semih Kaplanoglu (Süt/Milk, Yumurta/Egg, Melegin Düsüsü/Angel’s Fall)
with Bora Altas, Erdal Besikcioglu, Tülin Özen, Alev Ucarer, Ayse Altay
World premiere

Der Räuber (The Robber) Austria / Germany
by Benjamin Heisenberg (Sleeper, Max-Ophuels-Preis 2006)
with Andreas Lust, Franziska Weisz
World premiere

My Name Is Khan India
by Karan Johar
with Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol
Out of competition

Na Putu (On the Path) Bosnia and Herzegovina / Austria / Germany / Croatia
by Jasmila Zbanic (Grbavica, Golden Bear 2006)
with Zrinka Cvitesic (Shooting Star 2010), Leon Lucev, Ermin Bravo, Mirjana Karanovic
World premiere

Shekarchi (The Hunter) Germany / Iran
by Rafi Pitts (Zemestan - It's Winter)
with Rafi Pitts, Mitra Hajjar, Ali Nicksaulat, Hassan Ghalenoi
World premiere

Shutter Island USA
by Martin Scorsese (The Departed, Aviator, Cape Fear)
with Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Sir Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Patricia Clarkson, Max von Sydow
World premiere / Out of competition

The Ghost Writer France / Germany / UK
by Roman Polanski (The Pianist, Oscar 2002, China Town, Cul-de-sac, Golden Bear 1966)
with Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall, Olivia Williams
World premiere

Sunday, 13 December 2009

L.A. Film Critics Awards ... and the winners are:

PICTURE: "The Hurt Locker"
Runner-up: "Up in the Air"

DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
Runner-up: Michael Haneke, "The White Ribbon"

ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
Runner-up: Colin Firth, "A Single Man"

ACTRESS: Yolande Moreau, "Séraphine"
Runner-up: Carey Mulligan, "An Education"

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds"
Runner-up: Peter Capaldi, "In the Loop"

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Mo'Nique, "Precious"
Runner-up: Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"

SCREENPLAY: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, "Up in the Air"
Runner-up: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche, "In the Loop"

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Christian Berger, "The White Ribbon"
Runner-up: Barry Ackroyd, "The Hurt Locker"

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Philip Ivey, "District 9"
Runner-up: Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, "Avatar"

BEST MUSIC SCORE: T-Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton, "Crazy Heart"
Runner-up: Alexandre Desplat, "Fantastic Mr. Fox"

Runner-up: "The White Ribbon"

DOCUMENTARY/NON-FICTION FILM: "The Beaches of Agnès" and "The Cove" (tie)

ANIMATION: "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
Runner-up: "Up"


NEW GENERATION: Neill Blomkamp, "District 9"


Saturday, 12 December 2009

EUROPEAN FILM AWARDS 2009 - and the winners are ...

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), Germany/Austria/France/Italy
written and directed by Michael Haneke
produced by Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschka, Michael Katz, Margaret Menegoz
& Andrea Occhipinti

Michael Haneke for Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

Tahar Rahim in Un ProphEte (A Prophet)

Kate Winslet in The Reader (Der Vorleser)

Michael Haneke for Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

Anthony Dod Mantle for Antichrist & Slumdog Millionaire

Brigitte Taillandier, Francis Wargnier, Jean-Paul Hurier & Marc Doisne for
the Sound Design, Un ProphEte (A Prophet)

Alberto Iglesias for Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces)

Katalin Varga, Romania/UK/Hungary
written & directed by Peter Strickland
produced by Tudor Giurgiu, Oana Giurgiu & Peter Strickland

Mia et le Migou (Mia and the Migoo), France/Italy
directed by Jacques-Rémy Girerd, co-directed by Nora Twomey

POSTE RESTANTE by Marcel Łoziński

Ken Loach

Isabelle Huppert

THE SOUND OF INSECTS - Record of a Mummy, Switzerland
by Peter Liechti

Diana Elbaum and Jani Thiltges

Andrzej Wajda for TATARAK (Sweet Rush)

PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARD for Best European Film
directed by Danny Boyle
written by Simon Beaufoy
produced by Christian Colson

Les temoins/ The Witnesses, Andre Techine, France 2007

Set in Paris at the beginning of the 1980s, Andre Techine's film is a wonderful, bittersweet, memoir about the early days of AIDS and the various ways of how those afflicted with it - and their partners and relatives - coped with it. Despite its grave subject matter, Les temoins is told in a fresh, light, and most of all, unpretentious fashion. Those among the viewers who are old enough to recall those days when HIV first appeared - including myself - and who were affected by it in one way or another, will find Techine's film painful to watch at times, for he very truthfully captured the fear, the hysteria and the uncertainty that surrounded the virus which, back then, was equal to a death sentence.

So it is surely no coincidence that Techine's film is full of references to death and its opposite - birth, which come in all shapes or forms, water being one of them. Another, frequently recurring one, is the Ile de la Cite, the oldest part of Paris or, put differently, the city's birthplace.

A wonderfully melancholy scene in the second half of Les temoins beautifully catches the crazy insouciance of the last days of disco which, while on their way out, were already tinged by the menace of AIDS when we see a hooker dancing to the 1982 hit 'Marcia Baila' by Les Rita Mitsouko, a song that is as beautiful and ecstatic as it is sad.

The next thing we know is, that she's HIV positive.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Reflections on Mulholland Drive, David Lynch, USA/ France 2001

Like everyone else, I suppose, I go back to my favourite films time and again, not - or not exclusively - to see and discover new and different things about the film with each viewing, but precisely because I want to revisit the familiar, so to speak. Why I am particularly attracted to Lynch's film at this time is anybody's guess, however, I am known to watch films over and over again, provided they hit a nerve, strike a chord, which presumably all our favourite films do. This, though, is putting it mildly in the case of Mulholland Drive and me!

If I had to pinpoint a few things about what attracts me to Lynch's film, one would surely be Badalamenti's soundtrack, not simply because it is brilliant - which it is! - but because it really does what a film score, a soundtrack, is supposed to do but more often than doesn't achieve: it underscores the action on screen. In so doing, Badalamenti's haunting score echoes the prevailing sense of doom which dominates Mulholland Drive from start to finish. This prevailing sense of doom, that cloak of darkness and 'stimmung' which permeates the film, and keeping it at the same level throughout the duration of the film, of course, is a considerable achievement in itself, and I take my hat off to Lynch that even after repeated viewings of his masterpiece, I'm still rapt, mesmerised, every time I see it primarily because it does put you under its spell from the very start.

Another reason why Mulholland Drive has lost nothing of its attraction is because it is drenched in mystery, because it is a riddle never to be (fully) solved.
Although the overall plot line has long become clear to me, there are moments in the film which remain inexplicable and that give me pause very time I see them. Yet, due to the rare symbiosis of excellent direction, outstanding set design, perfect soundtrack, brilliant casting, and a first-rate screenplay, these moments never lose any of their power, nor would you ever question their believability.
Somewhere, a blogger has suggested that overanalysing Mulholland Drive threatens to diminish its pull, its fascination, by taking away some of its mystery. The things we can't explain or fathom are always the ones that continue to fascinate us as we are perpetually tempted to probe, to get to the heart of the matter, to find answers for all the open questions. This is of course also the reason why Mulholland Drive has remained as scary and creepy to me as the first time I saw it: because what scares me - us - most are the things we can't explain.

Considering the sheer number of interpretations and analyses regarding the meaning behind Mulholland Drive that are floating on the web, I think it is safe to assume that the mystery will continue for quite some time and that, if anything, this 'overanalysis' has helped to keep the mystery and the fascination of Mulholland Drive alive and well. Also, Lynch, luckily, has resisted to offer any explanations on his part outside these '10 hints', made available when Mulholland Drive was released on DVD:

1. Pay particular attention to the beginning of the film: At least two clues are revealed before the credits

- These clues are: the jitterbug contest, which Diane Selwyn/ Betty wins and whom we see surrounded by the judges (?), her parents (?); the pink duvet the camera zooms in on immediately after, indicating that what we're about to see is a dream.

2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade

- There's a red lampshade in Diane Selwyn's apartment and one, I think in Aunt Ruth's apartment. This may indicate the two, if not more, realities of Mulholland Drive's narrative. As to the meaning of lampshade beyond that - you've got me there!

3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?

- 'The Sylvia North Story', which, I think is mentioned twice, first in Diane's/ Betty's dream and a second time at the film's end, during the dinner. If the title is anything to go by, 'The Sylvia North Story', presumably is a film about a young starlet who wants to strike it big in Hollywood and thus echoes Diane's own life.

4. An accident is a terrible event … Notice the location of the accident

- Mulholland Drive: the film's title, but also home to a host of film stars. Like Sunset Boulevard, it's also a never-ending street and, in my opinion, most importantly, similar to Sunset Boulevard, it has a rough end and a posh one, indicating the two sides of the 'Hollywood Coin' (see: Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard or Diane/ Betty in Lynch's film).
Mulholland Drive follows along the ridge of the Hollywood Hills and affords spectacular views across Los Angeles.

5. Who gives a key, and why?

- The blue key ... is found in Rita's/ Camilla's purse and is later given to Diane in the restaurant by the hitman. The key, I suppose, unlocks (and also locks!) Diane's dream world.

6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup

- I noticed them, but that's as far as I got ...

7. What is felt, realised and gathered at the club Silencio?

- Sadness. The realisation that Diane's/ Betty's relationship with Rita/ Camilla is not to last, that it is an illusion, like everything we just saw. After that scene, once the purse is opened containing the blue box, Diane's dream come to an end.

8. Did talent alone help Camilla?

- No! It is clear that she slept around, and not only that: she slept with her director to get the part and all at Diane's expense.

9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind 'Winkies'

- In my view, the bum with the frightful face represents Diane's dark side, her guilt and her bad conscience.

10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

- That's what I'd like to know, too ... For as we're told by Diane during the dinner, "her aunt died", so her appearance at the very end of the film can only be explained as a product of Diane's imagination.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

It's A Free World, Ken Loach, UK/ Germany/ Italy/ Spain/ Poland, 2007

It's A Free World is a flawed, yet brilliant and highly relevant film. Flawed, because its topic - the exploitation of illegal eastern European by profiteers in a western country, in this case the UK - is too big to be dealt with in just 90 minutes, and also because coming from Loach, one would have expected It's A Free World to be told in a less conventional, less genre-conform, fashion. And yet, even though Loach packed rather a lot into his film, taken as a social drama cum crime story It's A Free World nevertheless works, because Loach's film is an exercise in taut, dense storytelling.

What also works in the film's favour are the strong performances by the two leading actresses, Juliet Ellis, playing Rose, and Kierston Wareing, playing Angie. Although in business together with an employment agency at the film's beginning, they gradually drift apart over the course of the film as Rose is more and more put off by Angie's increasingly ruthless methods when it comes to taking advantage of the desperate situation of immigrants trying to survive.

Loach's intention is to give a stark, realistic portrayal of an every-day European reality which, more often than not, is swept under the carpet. His films are usually set in a working class background, and Loach is known to always takes the side of the underdog. Dito in It's A Free World: while Rose and Angie are both personifying two sides of the same coin, Loach leaves no doubt about whose side he's on. And in one of the film's key scenes, Loach brings his message across in the guise of Anglie's father - a what you might call old-fashioned, old school member of the working class with a conscience - who gives his daughter a piece of his mind, mincing no words about today's society which, completely corrupted by greed, stops at nothing.

Unsurprisingly then, the ending of It's A Free World is poignantly - realistic?, cynical? - but definitely chilling, and one that's not for cheerful, optimistic Polyannas.

It's A Free World is out on DVD and is highly recommended!

Monday, 7 December 2009

All That Song And Dance

Camp classics: seven iconic performances to warm you up on this chilly winter day:

Liza Minnelli, "Mein Herr", from: Cabaret, Bob Fosse, 1971

Lena Horne, "Stormy Weather", from: Stormy Weather, Andrew L. Stone, 1943

Marilyn Monroe, "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", from: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Howard Hawks, 1953

Judy Garland (& Fred Astaire), "We're A Couple Of Swells", from: Easter Parade, Charles Walters, 1948

Rita Hayworth, "Put the Blame On Mame", from: Gilda, Charles Vidor, 1946

Marlene Dietrich, "Hot Voodoo", from: Blonde Venus, Josef von Sternberg, 1932

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Duel, Steven Spielberg, USA 1971

Although over the years a number of interpretations have been read into the chase by the truck out to kill the Dennis Weaver character (e.g. the truck being just a product of Weaver's imagination; suburban angst; the struggle between working class and middle class, etc.), taken at face value Duel quite simply is an outstanding psychological thriller in which Spielberg more than proves that he knows how to pull all the genre's available registers and, moreover, knows how to use them in a very subtle and clever way. What strikes me each time I see the film, is the simplicity, or banality, of it: after all, it's just a truck that for the full duration of the film chases a car. That's it. But Spielberg seems to have known back then what he's since forgotten: that a major part of the creation of suspense is revealing as little as possible, for there's nothing that frightens us more than the unknown. Although the idea of never showing the truck driver's face, nor revealing his identity, was already in Richard Matheson's novel on which Duel is based, Spielberg did well to leave that in, for otherwise Duel would have been a different film, and I doubt it would have been near as good.

But in Duel Spielberg also masters the tricky art of not just creating suspense, but slowly building it up - and again in a very subtle, often unexpected, way - nothing is too much or overdone. Surprisingly enough, the plot for all its simplicity rings plausible at every moment with no narrative holes or scenes of ridiculous and gratuitous violence to spoil it. But unlike most of today's disaster films who more often than not crush under the weight of their overblown budgets, Duel was shot with a modest budget, and this served the film well as all expensive - and actually unnecessary - technological gimmicks had to be skipped in favour of suggestion, subtlety and psychological storytelling. Besides its excellent screenplay and direction, what also adds to Duel's greatness is its use of music, which, like the whole film, is more than a casual nod to Hitchcock. There are moments in the score which are clearly reminiscent of Bernhard Herrmann's score for Psycho. But then, the truck itself is not that dissimilar to the birds - equally harmless yet menacing in appearance, and it always strikes when you least expect it.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Mon meilleur ami/ My Best Friend, Patrice Leconte, France 2006

Last night's film was Mon meilleur ami, which is French mainstream fare, but coming from France, it immediately has a leg up in the UK where all things French are often hastily - and unjustifiably - associated with 'art'. But this just goes to show that stereotypes work their magic in a time when an overload of in creasingly undifferentiated information is dumped on people who lap it up, all too glad that what's fed them is easily digestible and, thank God!, doesn't upset their worldview! Don't get me wrong: I love French cinema! But that doesn't mean that I mistake all French films for art. Coming from - most - other countries, I doubt that a film with a storyline so thin, sentimental, and predictable, as Mon meilleur ami would even find a distributor.

And so Mon meilleur ami, which stretches the credibility muscle to the limit, makes the rounds as an arthouse film when, in fact, it's a film that has something for everyone: in its pseudo-analysis of 'what makes a real friend', it gives the fifth-grader something to ponder about, it squeezes a tear out of grandma's eye, and it makes mother believe that today, she's seen a really introspective, demanding, intellectual - foreign! - film. With subitles, fo Christ's sake! But if the film's premise and storyline are what you'd expect from your ordinary run-of-the-mill Hollywood extravaganza, the film's ending is so blatantly sentimental and predictable that it makes Terms of Endearment look like a Tarkovsky-film by comparison. Hard to believe that a director with such an impressive track record as Patrice Leconte should have concocted such an insipid and sugar-coated melodrama.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

National Board of Review Awards

Awards season has started, and the National Board of Review (NBR) has just announced their awards for the best films and performances of 2009. Here's the complete list:

Film: "Up in the Air"

Director: Clint Eastwood, "Invictus"

Actor: George Clooney, "Up in the Air"

Morgan Freeman, "Invictus"

Actress: Carey Mulligan, "An Education"

Supporting Actor: Woody Harrelson, "The Messenger"

Supporting Actress: Anna Kendrick, "Up in the Air"

Foreign Language Film: "A Prophet"

Documentary:"The Cove"

Animated Feature: "Up"

Ensemble Cast: "It's Complicated"

Breakthrough Performance by an Actor: Jeremy Renner, "The Hurt Locker"

Breakthrough Performance by an Actress: Gabourey Sidibe, "Precious"

Spotlight Award for Best Directorial Debut: Duncan Jones, "Moon"

Oren Moverman, "The Messenger"

Marc Webb, "(500) Days Of Summer"

Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man

Adapted Screenplay: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

Special Filmmaking Achievement Award: Wes Anderson, the Fantastic Mr. Fox

William K. Everson Film History Award:Jean Picker Firstenberg

NBR Freedom Of Expression: "Burma Vj: Reporting From A Closed Country"


"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellseberg and the Pentagon Papers"

Ten Best Films (in alphabetical order)

•"An Education"

•"(500) Days Of Summer"

•"The Hurt Locker"

•"Inglourious Basterds"


•"The Messenger"

•"A Serious Man"

•"Star Trek"


•"Where the Wild Things Are"

Five Best Foreign-Language Films (in alphabetical order)

•"The Maid"


•"Song Of Sparrows"

•"Three Monkeys"

•"The White Ribbon"

Five Best Documentaries (in alphabetical order)

•"Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country"


•"Food, Inc."

•"Good Hair"

•"The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"

Top Ten Independent Films (in alphabetical order)


•"District 9"

•"Goodbye Solo"


•"In the Loop"


•"Me and Orson Welles"



•"Two Lovers"

Source: Variety/ Sam Thielman

Berlinale, 11. - 21. February 2010: Honorary Awards For Hanna Schygulla and Wolfgang Kohlhaase

The Berlin Film Festival has just announced that German actress Hanna Schygulla and German screenwriter and director Wolfgang Kohlhaase will both receive an honorary Golden Bear for their Lifetime Achievement at next year's Berlin Film Festival.
It seems that with this being the Berlinale's 60th anniversary, festival director Dieter Kosslick wants to highlight German talent and contribution as the Berlinale's 2010 jury president is also a Teuton: Werner Herzog.

Hanna Schygulla in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun (W-Germany 1978)

German director-screenwriter Wolfgang Kohlhaase (Summer in Berlin, Germany 2005)

Frozen River, Courtney Hunt, USA 2008

For all its awards at festivals of independent film across the world, notably the Grand Jury Award at Sundance nearly 2 years ago, Frozen River is actually a mainstream picture that comes in the guise of an 'indie'. While the plot itself, revolving around a dispossessed woman who, deserted by her do-no-good husband, decides to hook up with an on-the-skids native American woman to smuggle illegal immigrants over the Canadian border, undoubtedly has all the makings of an indie, the plot twists do not: they might as well have come straight from Paramount or Universal or both, where the screenplay might have been 'developed' by a slew of writers and subsequently gone through any number of rewrites - that, at least, is how arbitrary and, at times, hard to believe, the plot line is.

But now the good news: while Frozen River may not be your ordinary 'indie' with a non-linear narrative and so on and so forth, the film reveals its 'indie' quality - for lack of a better term - primarily in its pacing and in its gritty feel, underscored by a beautifully moody soundtrack. And this is really what makes Frozen River worth watching: its atmosphere; the constant sense of doom, which Courtney Hunt managed to sustain from start to finish. And yes, I admit, Hunt's magic worked for me, as for all its predictability - and sometimes implausibility - Frozen River had me in its grip from the very first minute. In a way, Frozen River , although not a genre piece as such, could best be described as Film-Noir-meets-Socio-Drama. Got the picture?

So while Frozen River may not have been the 'indie' I expected - which, careful!, is not meant to be a judgement - it is nevertheless a film I'd recommend you to see. If only for Melissa Leo's outstanding performance of a trailer-trash-woman struggling to keep her head above water. Just awesome!

Melissa Leo - you'd never believe a woman this beautiful could look so common until you see her in Frozen River.

Frozen River is out on DVD.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Sundance Film Festival 2010, Competition Line-Up


•"Blue Valentine" - Directed by Derek Cianfrance, written by Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, a portrait of an American marriage that charts the evolution of a relationship over time. With Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Doman.

•"Douchebag" - Directed by Drake Doremus, written by Lindsay Stidham, Doremus, Jonathan Schwartz and Andrew Dickler, in which a man about to be married takes his younger brother on a wild goose chase to find the latter's fifth-grade girlfriend. Features Dickler, Ben York Jones, Marguerite Moreau, Nicole Vicius, Amy Ferguson, Wendi McClendon-Covey.

•"The Dry Land" - Directed and written by Ryan Piers Williams, in which a returning U.S. soldier tries to reconcile his experiences overseas with his life in Texas. With America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Melissa Leo.

•"Happythankyoumoreplease" - Directed and written by Josh Radnor, about six New Yorkers negotiating love, friendship and gratitude when they're too old to be precocious and not yet fully adults. Stars Malin Akerman, Radnor, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Algieri.

•"Hesher" - Directed by Spencer Susser, written by Susser and David Michod from a story by Brian Charles Frank, in which a mysterious, anarchical trickster enters the lives of a family dealing with a painful loss. Toplines Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie, John Carroll Lynch.

•"Holy Rollers" - Directed by Kevin Tyler Asch, written by Antonio Macia, concerning a young Hasidic man in the throes of money, power and opportunity who becomes an international Ecstasy smuggler. With Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny A. Abeckaser, Ari Graynor, Jason Fuchs.

•"Howl" - Directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, a "nonfiction drama" about how Allen Ginsberg created the eponymous poem and the subsequent landmark obscenity trial. Stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels.

•"The Imperialists Are Still Alive!" - Directed and written by Zeina Durra, about how a French Manhattanite continues her work as an artist in the wake of the sudden abduction of her childhood sweetheart and a blooming love affair. Toplines Elodie Bouchez, Jose Maria de Tavira, Karim Saleh Karolina Muller, Marianna Kulukundis, Rita Ackerman.

•"Lovers of Hate" - Directed and written by Bryan Poyser, about how the reunion of estranged brothers is undermined when the woman they both love chooses one over the other. With Chris Doubek, Heather Kafka, Alex Karpovsky, Zach Green.

•"Night Catches Us" - Directed and written by Tanya Hamilton, which focuses on the eventful return of a young man to the race-torn Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up during the Black Power movement. Features Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Jamara Griffin.

•"Obselidia" - Directed and written by Diane Bell, about the amorous awakening of a lonely librarian with a beguiling cinema projectionist in Death Valley. Toplines Gaynor Howe, Michael Piccirilli, Frank Hoyt Taylor.

•"Skateland" - Directed by Anthony Burns, and written by Burns, Brandon Freeman and Heath Freeman, in which dramatic events in early '80s small-town Texas force a 19-year-old skating rink manager to see his life in a new light. With Shiloh Fernandez, A.J. Buckley, Ashley Greene, Brett Cullen, Ellen Hollman, Heath Freeman.

•"Sympathy for Delicious" - Directed by Mark Ruffalo and written by Christopher Thornton, which centers on a newly paralyzed DJ who gets more than he bargained for when he seeks out the world of faith healing. Stars Orlando Bloom, Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, John Carroll Lynch.

•"3 Backyards" - Directed and written by Eric Mendelsohn, in which a quiet suburban town becomes intense emotional terrain for three residents on one strange day. Toplines Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Rachel Resheff, Kathryn Erbe, Danai Gurira.

•"Welcome to the Rileys" - Directed by Jake Scott, written by Ken Hixon, about a damaged man who seeks salvation by caring for a wayward young woman during a business trip to New Orleans. Stars James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo.

•"Winter's Bone" - Directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, which focuses on the dangerous efforts of an Ozard Mountain girl to track down her drug-dealer father while keeping her family intact. With Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Kevin Breznahan, Isaiah Stone.


•"Bhutto" - Directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara, written by O'Hara, a look at the life of the assassinated former Pakistani prime minister.

•"Casino Jack and the United States of Money" - Directed by Alex Gibney, an investigation into the world of imprisoned super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cronies.

•"Family Affair" - Directed by Chico Colvard, which examines resilience, survival and the capacity to accomodate a parent's past crimes on the road to satisfying the longing for family.

•"Freedom Riders" - Directed by Stanley Nelson, about civil rights activists who challenged segregation in the South in 1961.

•"Gas Land" - Directed by Josh Fox, which looks at toxic streams, dying livestock, flammable sinks and people with weakened health in the vicinity of natural gas drilling.

•"I'm Pat ------- Tillman" - Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, which focuses on the efforts of the family of the pro football star to take on the U.S. government after he was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan in 2004.

•"Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child" - Directed by Tamra Davis, a portrait of the celebrated '80s artist.

•"Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" - Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, a forthright glimpse into the life and comedic process of the veteran comedian.

•"Lucky" - Directed by Jeffrey Blitz, which examines what happens when ordinary people hit the lottery jackpot.

•"My Perestroika" - Directed by Robin Hessman, an analysis of the transition of the U.S.S.R. as seen through the lives of five Muscovites who came of age at the time of communism's collapse.

•"The Oath" - Directed by Laura Poitras, lensed in Yemen, about two men whose fateful encounter in 1996 led them to Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Guantanamo and the U.S. Supreme Court.

•"Restrepo" - Directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, for which the two filmmakers accompanied the Second Platoon in a crucial valley to reveal the soldiers' intense labor, fights and camaraderie as they take on the Taliban.

•"A Small Act" - Directed by Jennifer Arnold, which spotlights how a young Kenyan, whose life was dramatically changed when a Swedish stranger sponsored his education, later reciprocates by founding his own scholarship program.

•"Smash His Camera" - Directed by Leon Gast, which uses the story of notorious paparazzo Ron Galella to examine issues such as the right to privacy, freedom of the press and celebrity worship.

•"12th and Delaware" - Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, a look at how the abortion battle continues in unexpected ways on an unassuming corner in the U.S.

•"Waiting for Superman" - Directed by Davis Guggenheim, which uses multiple interlocking stories to analyze the crisis in U.S. public education.


•"All That I Love" (Poland) - Directed and written by Jacek Borcuch, about four small-town teenagers who form a punk rock band in 1981 during the growth of the Solidarity movement. With Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Jakub Gierszal, Mateusz Banasiuk, Olga Frycz, Igor Obloza. North American premiere.

•"Animal Kingdom" (Australia) - Directed and written by David Michod, which centers upon a 17-year-old boy who, in the wake of his mother's death, is thrust precariously between a criminal family and a detectives who hopes to save him. Stars Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville. World premiere.

•"Boy" (New Zealand) - Directed and written by Taika Waititi, a study of how two young brothers reconciles fantasy with reality when their father returns home after many years. Features Waititi, James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone. World premiere.

•"Four Lions" (U.K.) - Directed by Chris Morris, written by Morris, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, a comedy about some self-styled British jihadis. With Chris Wilson, Kevin Eldon. World premiere.

•"Grown Up Movie Star" (Canada) - Directed and written by Adriana Maggs, which spins on a teenage girl left to care for her rural father when her mother runs away. Features Shawn Doyle, Tatiana Maslany, Jonny Harris, Mark O'Brien, Andy Jones, Julia Kennedy. U.S. premiere.

•"The Man Next Door" (Argentina), written and directed by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, about two neighbors who clash over a wall separating their properties. With Rafael Spregelburd, Daniel Araoz, Eugenia Alonso, Ines Budassi, Lorenza Acuna. International premiere.

•"Me Too" (Spain) - Directed by Alvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro, about the unconventional relationship between a 34-year-old college-educated man with Down syndrome and his free-spirited co-worker. With Pablo Pineda, Lola Duenas, Antonio Naharro, Isabel Garcia Lorca, Pedro Alvarez Ossorio. International premiere.

•"Nuummioq" (Greenland) - Directed by Otto Rosing and Torben Bech, written by Bech, a contemporary story of how a young man pieces together aspects of his past and gets on with his life while journeying through Greenland's imposing landscapes. Stars Lars Rosing, Angunnguaq Larsen, Julie Berthelsen, Morten Rose, Makka Kleist, Mariu Olsen. World premiere.

•"Peepli Live" (India) - Directed and written by Anusha Rizvi, a satire about the media frenzy created when an impoverished farmer announces that he'll commit suicide so his family can receive government compensation. Toplines Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak.

•"Son of Babylon" (Iraq) - Directed and written by Mohamed Al Daradji, the tale of a young Kurdish boy and his grandmother as they travel through Iraq searching for the remains of their father/son in the wake of Saddam Hussein's fall from power. With Yasser Talib, Shazda Hussein, Bashir Al-Majid. International premiere.

•"Southern District" (Bolivia) - Directed and written by Juan Carlos Valdivia, a look at social change that envelopes an upper-class family in La Paz, Bolivia. Toplines Ninon del Castillo, Pascual Loayza, Nicolas Fernandez, Juan Pablo Koria, Mariana Vargas. North American premiere.

•"The Temptation of St. Tony" (Estonia) - Directed and written by Veiko Ounpuu, which centers upon a mid-level manager with an aversion to being "good" who confronts life mysteries as he loses his grasp on his once-quiet life. Features Taavi Eelmaa, Rain Tolk, Tiina Tauraite, Katarina Lauk, Raivo E. Tamm. World premiere.

•"Undertow" (Colombia-France-Germany-Peru) - Directed and written by Javier Fuentes-Leon, an offbeat ghost story in which a married fisherman on the Peruvian seaside tries to reconcile his devotion to his male lover within the town's rigid traditions. Stars Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo. North American premiere.

•"Vegetarian" (South Korea) - Directed and written by Lim Woo-seong, about a housewife whose strange dreams and resulting meat aversion cause trouble with her husband and attract the interest of her artist brother-in-law. Toplines Chea Min-seo, Kim Hyun-sung, Kim Yeo-jin, Kim Young-jae. International premiere.


•"Enemies of the People" (Cambodia-U.K.) - Directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, which recounts the shocking revelations that ensue when a young journalist whose family was killed by the Khmer Rouge befriends the perpetrators of the Killing Fields genocide. World premiere.

•"A Film Unfinished" (Germany-Israel) - Directed by Yael Hersonski, in which film found in Nazi archives reveals the means used to stage Warsaw ghetto life. World premiere.

•"Fix Me" (France-Palestinian Territories-Switzerland) - Directed by Raed Andoni, in which Andoni seeks different forms of help for a relentless headache in his hometown of Ramallah. International premiere.

•"His and Hers" (Ireland) - Directed by Ken Wardrop, in which 70 Irish women offer insights into the relationships between women and men. World premiere.

•"Kick in Iran" (Germany) - Directed by Fatima Geza Abdollahyan, about the struggles of the first female Taekwondo fighter from Iran to qualify for the Olympic Games. World premiere.

•"Last Train Home" (Canada) - Directed by Fan Lixin, which focuses on the ordeals of a Chinese migrant worker who, along with many others, tries to reunite with a distant family. U.S. premiere.

•"The Red Chapel" (Denmark) - Directed by Mads Bruegger, about a journalist without scruples, a self-proclaimed spastic and a comedian travel to North Korea under the guise of a cultural exchange visit to challenge the totalitarian regime. U.S. premiere.

•"Russian Lessons" (Georgia-Germany-Norway) - Directed by Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov, which looks into ethnic cleansing in Georgia revealed by an investigation of Russian actions during the 2008 war. World premiere.

•"Secrets of the Tribe" (Brazil) - Directed by Jose Padiha, which examines the scandal and infighting within the academic anthropology community regarding the representation and exploitation of indigenous Indian in the Amazon Basin. World premiere.

•"Sins of My Father" (Argentina-Colombia) - Directed by Nicolas Entel, which delves into the life and times of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar through the eyes of his son, who fled Colombia to lead his own life. North American premiere.

•"Space Tourists" (Switzerland) - Directed by Christian Frei, a humorous look at billionaires who pay large sums to travel into outer space for fun. North American premiere.

•"Waste Land" (U.K.) - Directed by Lucy Walker, which reveals how lives are transformed when international artist Vik Muniz collaborates with garbage picker in the world's largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro. World premiere.

Source: Variety/ Todd McCarthy

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, USA 1944) vs. Bodyheat (Lawrence Kasdan, USA 1981)

With Film Noir being one of my favourite film genres and Double Indemnity one of my favourite films, in what follows, I seek to examine the similarities as well as the differences between Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (USA 1944) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (USA 1981).

The similarities are at once obvious and vague. With almost forty years between them, Wilder’s film was shot under entirely different circumstances and in a completely different political climate: the Production Code was still in action and America had just entered the war against Nazi-Germany while Kasdan’s film was shot at the beginning of the Reagan era. My intention is to look at both films by taking into account their respective political backgrounds, and, furthermore, to examine how both films are related to each other. James M. Cain’s novel, Double Indemnity, on which Wilder’s film is based, was first published in 1936, but because of its explicit violent content it was first deemed unfilmable. With the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934, Wilder was greatly restricted in terms of what could and what could not be shown on-screen, forcing him and his co-writer, Raymond Chandler, to employ a great deal of subtlety and innuendo so as not to offend the censors. However, like in so many other (American) films of that era, given a skilful screenwriter, this subtleness and delicacy often worked to the film’s advantage. Moreover, America was at war with Nazi-Germany, which not only indirectly led to the emergence of film noir, of which Double Indemnity is a prime example, but it also resulted in an influx of European immigrants to Hollywood, many of whom had previously worked at the UFA studios in Berlin at a time when German Expressionism flourished and whose influence they later translated into their contribution to American film noir. Even though the film considered to be the first film noir was shot by John Huston, an American, The Maltese Falcon (USA 1941), most subsequent films noir were made by European refugees, among them Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Otto Preminger, John Brahm and, of course, Wilder himself, all of whom -with the exception of Preminger- had worked at UFA. And although Ernst Lubitsch was not directly a refugee as such (for he had left Germany in 1923, following an invitation from Mary Pickford), he would remain Wilder’s foremost influence as Wilder considered Lubitsch to be ‘the master of film composition, a magician’ (Zolotov 1977: 64). Lubitsch was also responsible for getting Wilder a job at Paramount, considered to be the most European of all Hollywood studios because of the large number of émigrés who worked there. In the case of Double Indemnity the European influence is clearly discernible. Miklos Rosza, who composed the film’s evocative, powerful score, was Hungarian but also worked at UFA prior to his immigration to the US. Paramount’s head of Production Design was Bremen-born Hans Dreier, who himself was responsible for Double Indemnity’s sets. His influence seems particularly apparent in Phyllis’ living-room, which has a distinct European, almost gothic, flair to it, as if haunted by Caligari and his ghosts. And even Wilder’s collaborator, Raymond Chandler, too, had a strong European connection. Of Irish stock, he was educated at Dulwich College and spent parts of his youth in France and Germany. In fact, there are scholars who claim that Chandler’s European education contributed substantially to his unique, inimitable prose.

By comparison, Body Heat seems blatantly American, which is why at first sight the two films do not appear to have much to do with each other. Yet, Kasdan said that Body Heat is
'a child of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity
and Out of The Past, but used for my own purposes'
(Spicer 2002: 150).
Much like Chandler and Wilder did when they adapted Cain’s novel for the screen, Kasdan, too, kept the rough framework of Wilder’s film, by restricting his changes to details such as, for instance, turning Walter Neff from a humdrum insurance salesman into a small-time lawyer, which is his 1980s equivalent. One significant change, however, is the ending. Whereas at the end of Wilder’s film Phyllis dies and Walter is about to die, Matty Walker escapes and Ned Racine, the man she so viciously ensnares, is on death row.

Like in Double Indemnity, music also plays an important role in Body Heat, and sets the mood for the better part of the film with the difference that Miklos Rosza’s scaremongering, unsettling score has been traded for John Barry’s jazzy, sultry tune that subtly underscores the erotic tension between Matty and Ned. However, while Rosza’a score is so powerful that it could almost tell the story on its own, Barry’s score, albeit beautiful, is too restrained to achieve that.
Instead of being shot in Los Angeles, still not the major metropolis that it is today at the time Double Indemnity was made, Body Heat is set in Pine Haven, which sounds like a name taken from a Raymond Chandler novel.Shot in colour, gone are the chiaroscuro, the shadows and murkiness of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the film uses colour very cleverly to signify the frame of mind of the protagonists. As noticed Spicer:
'the warmth of the yellows, browns and reds gradually
gives way to cool blues and greys as Ned realizes he
is the victim of Matty’s wiles' (Spicer 2002: 151).
Unlike in Double Indemnity, where most of the action takes either place at night or in darkened rooms, one of the most striking features about Body Heat is the use of light, open spaces and, particularly, heat. While Phyllis and Walter meet in an enclosed space, Matty and Ned meet at an open-air concert in the middle of one of Florida’s heat-waves. However, heat, as the film’s title suggests, refers not just to the heat-wave, but rather becomes a metaphor for the sexual attraction, the ‘heat’, between Matty Walker and Ned Racine, and the filmmakers deserve credit for making the heat palpable through the screen. Like in Chinatown (USA 1974), in Body Heat light is used to -literally- highlight the evil and the depravity that lie beneath. The relatively modest house Phyllis lives in has now turned into a grand mansion, and the husband, previously an oil-executive, is now a very wealthy real-estate broker and millionaire. These changes reflect the political climate of the time, for with Ronald Reagan having been elected the year before, America was about to enter its most prosperous decade since the 1950s. Matty Walker is the epitome of the Reagan woman, whose dream it is ‘to be rich and live on an exotic island’. Invoking Chandler’s and Wilder’s famous predilection for razor-sharp dialogues, Kasdan invented similarly witty lines and retorts for Bodyheat. However, like Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, it tends to be Matty who comes out on top and whose intellectual superiority to Ned is established by having her putting him in his place through acerbic, biting one-liners like ‘You aren’t too bright. I like that in a man’.
The Keyes-Neff friendship has its equivalent in Kasdan’s film, where the cigar-smoking Edgar G. Robinson is replaced by Ted Danson, who repeatedly performs tap-dancing routines in, what we must assume, is an imitation of Fred Astaire, which can be seen as an homage to the 1930s and 40s, which is also the time when film noir first started to flourish.

In conclusion, it can be said that both films are a reflection of the times they were made in. With the Vietnam War just barely over -and not yet been exhaustively tackled by filmmakers- and with a new president who promoted rearmament, nuclear power and relentless capitalism, the fear and uneasiness were perhaps not that different from how people felt forty years earlier. To quote Kasdan himself,
'The loss of innocence and which he (Kasdan) saw as
analogous to the feelings experienced by those returning
from the Second World War' (Spicer 2002: 150).


Spicer, Andrew (2002): Film Noir. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Ltd.
Zolotov, Maurice (1977): Billy Wilder in Hollywood. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.


Huston, John, The Maltese Falcon, USA 1941
Kasdan, Lawrence, Bodyheat, USA 1981
Polanski, Roman, Chinatown, USA 1974
Tourneur, Jaques, Out of the Past, USA 1947
Wilder, Billy, Double Indemnity, USA 1944

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Me And Orson Welles, Richard Linklater, USA 2009

Interview with Richard Linklater and Christian McKay about Linklater's forthcoming film Me And Orson Welles, due to be released in the UK on 4th December. The film tells the story of Welles' Mercury Theatre Production of Julius Ceasar in 1937.

Here's the trailer:

Monday, 30 November 2009

LA Confidential, Curtis Hanson, USA 1997

Ever since I happened to see Chinatown a second time after having not liked it the first time round, have I discovered that it’s very worthwhile to give a film you disliked - or didn't get - a second chance. Needless to say, I’ve since seen Chinatown many times over, but just tonight the very same thing happened to me with the film that many people consider to be ‘the new Chinatown’, or ‘even better than Chinatown’ – Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential.

I vividly remember having seen LA Confidential with a friend at the Barbicon cinema in London at the time when it was first released, but for some reason I fell asleep during the screening and found the film incredibly boring and laboured. The fuss that was made about the film was entirely lost on me. Maybe I didn’t want to like it because it galled me hearing LA Confidential being compared with Chinatown – and since Chinatown had since turned into my all-time favourite film, the fact that something so sacred to me should actually have an equal didn’t sit well with me, considering any kind of comparison with the original to be slander, a smear campaign by dim-witted critics to throw Chinatown off the pedestal, exchanging it for the latest flavour of the month until something else comes along which then, too, will be unashamedly hyped and showered with praise until they run out of adjectives … Well, I’m aware that I can be quite opinionated when it comes to films, – especially my favourite ones!

However, tonight, 11 years later, I saw LA Confidential again for the second time, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I was absolutely riveted; in fact, so engrossed and immersed in it was I that I watched it twice in a row! Well, regardless of the fact that it’s quite advisable to see the film more than once for a variety of reasons, but apart from everything else - how else are you to grasp the highly intricate plot, the cascade of names, the storyline that emerges, slowly, not quite halfway through the film - but almost - just when you thought there wasn’t one?! But of course all the conversational titbits, seemingly insignificant details in the narrative at the beginning – all of that pertains to the story, only that you deemed them peripheral until it’s too late; and that’s why the film -just like Chinatown- requires your attention from the moment the credits roll until the film’s bitter end.

LA Confidential is a tour de force of taut, sinewy screenwriting, with fully fleshed out characters and witty dialogue that’s tight like a fist. True to neo-noir form, LA Confidential takes place chiefly at night, in the dimly lit streets of Los Angeles and the plush and ritzy mansions of the Hollywood Hills. Most every character either has an axe to grind or skeletons in the closet, and there are few heroes but plenty of villains, though it takes you a while to figure out who exactly belongs to which category. The inevitable femme fatale inevitably comes in the disguise of a hooker; however, she’s no Phyllis Dietrichson, nor an Elsa Bannister, although Lyn Braken sure is dressed to kill. Lyn Braken, actually is probably one of the very few individuals in LA Confidential who has practically no hidden agenda. She is just another one of the scores of hopefuls that flocked to Hollywood during its infancy in the - more often than not - vain hope to be in pictures but ends up as a high-class prostitute instead. In that respect her character is reminiscent of Faye Greener in Nathaniel West’s/ John Schlesinger’s The Day Of The Locust although Lyn entirely lacks Faye’s guile and cruelty. In the early day of Hollywood, the hopeful, arriving on a bus from, say, Idaho, was as much part of Los Angeles as the police officer. And with many hopefuls turning from starlet to prostitute in a city that is filled to the rafters with movie folk, a lot of whom with no morals but money to burn, the only people who were busier than police officers were those who did the dirty work for them – or those, who took their job seriously. One such guy is Ed Exley, played by Guy Pearce, who is the embodiment of righteousness and decency. His character is juxtaposed by Russell Crowe’s Bud White, who is all muscle and no brain, and by Kevin Spacey’s Jack Vincennes, who in turn is the one who bends with the wind, jumps on every bandwagon, just as long as he can make a buck on the side and doesn’t get found out. If Ed and Bud portray two different faces of how to stand up and fight for your principles - a brainy and a brawny one - Jack is a third, the flipside – the one that has no morals or principles to speak of.

But even though Bud is too trigger-happy, Ed too priggish and Jack far too cynical, the truly bad guy, the one who equals the Noah Cross character in Chinatown, is their boss. While Noah Cross was wealthy enough to buy off politicians and police officers as he needs them, in LA Confidential money and power are united in the same person, Police Captain Dudley Smith, chillingly played by James Cromwell.
Like Chinatown, whose screenplay is based on a real-life water scandal that rocked LA like an earthquake in the 1910s, LA Confidential, too, is inspired by true incidents, James Ellroy - on whose book the film is based - drawing upon heavy and blatant corruption in LA’s Police Department during the 1930s and 40s.

Actually, being someone who’s always had a soft spot for Los Angeles, I just marvel at the amount of novels, short-stories and films in which LA is depicted as a gotham city, where disaster lurks behind every corner, full of “trashy cars and fancy women” and whose “streets are dark with something more than night”, to quote the city’s aptest chronicler, Raymond Chandler, to whose books, both, Chinatown and LA Confidential, owe a lot. It must be because I just don’t come across that seedy, sordid side of LA, being totally under its spell as I am. However, I can certainly imagine that it’s there, somewhere, but by looking at the palm tress swaying in the wind, with the sun high up in the eternally blue sky shining down on those gorgeous hacienda houses, you would simply never guess… but, I suppose, you only ever see what you want to see…or came to see.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

The International, Tom Tykwer, USA/ Germany 2009

When Tom Tykwer's The International opened earlier this year the reviews were such that I decided to wait until it's out on DVD. In other words, they were bad, and that's putting it mildly. As a result, Tykwer's film disappeared quickly from the screens, and wasn't helped a bit by the fact that it was chosen as the opening film of this year's Berlin Film Festival. Anyway, therefore I was quite surprised when watching The International for the first time last night, that it is actually not an uninteresting film. Not a masterpieve, to be sure, but it does indeed have its merits.

The International is a slick thriller, a cross between the James Bond and the Bourne franchises - although unlike those two, it has the additional twist - or bonus - of touching on a subject that has been on everybody’s lips recently: banks. At the time the film opened, this was expected to give Tykwer’s film some added momentum - which it didn't. Nevertheless, it injects it with a relevance which two years ago, when the film went into production, few people guessed the film might have.
Although the plot is difficult to follow and best be not held up to scrutiny, Tykwer and his scenarist, Eric Singer, get away with because The International is so fast paced, so nervy, hopping from location to location whereby exchanging one swanky hot spot for another, that Tykwer’s film at times looks like his location scout is a subscriber to Architectural Digest. The climax of The International is taking place in one such architectural highlight - the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, no less - only that in order to stage the elaborately choreographed showdown, Tykwer’s art director had to reconstruct the Guggenheim’s interior at Berlin’s Babelsberg Studios. With all the bloodshed, the disaster and distraction caused by the shootout, which, by the way, pays homage to the best films by De Palma, Schlesinger, and Pakula, filming at the actual location would have been impossible. Clearly, the locations are as important to the plot as are the protagonists - played by Clive Owen and Naomi Watts - and sometimes they even outshine them since given the action-driven plot, they don’t have that much to do. However, this remark is not intended as a putdown, but simply to highlight the fact that The International is an action-thriller, and as such is up there with the best of them.

The International is out on DVD.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Jesus de Montreal, Denys Arcand, Canada 1989

Jesus de Montreal is one of my all-time favourite films, and one that I watch periodically, discovering new things every time I see it.

Arcand’s film begins with a priest, Frere Leclerc, hiring a young, aspiring, actor, Daniel, in order to breath new life into the Passion play. Audiences have been dwindling over the past years, and Frere Leclerc realises that his only chance to win them back, not to mention recruiting new ones, is by bringing the play up to date, by modernising it. Thus, Daniel sets out to hire a group of actors and it is only slowly that it dawns on us that Daniel embodies Christ himself, out to enlist his disciples. The parallels to Jesus’ own life are evident, yet they are cleverly conceived. For instance, as Maria Magdalene Daniel hires Mireille, who, not unlike the biblical lady she is to personify, is the kept woman of an advertising executive. The advertising and media world looms large in the film, and so it should, for in this day and age, its following outnumbers that of any religion by far, in fact, it has replaced it. On a similar note, Constance, who is hired for another part - presumably that of Maria - is first shown giving out soup to the poor in a shelter for the homeless and her own home is open to anybody who needs a place to sleep and a bite to eat. Daniel eventually makes it his home, and so does Mireille, hence it becomes the place where the actors live, meet and rehearse, and as such stands in for a sort of latter-day nativity which would give birth to their work - their - revised, modernised - play. This, of course, is a fitting metaphor to the Passion play itself, which, although, it certainly has happened in one way or another almost 2000 years ago, is essentially a production of man: it was written down, brought to paper, many years after the fact, and consequently it is our right, some may say, our duty, to question its facts.

To call Arcand’s film blasphemous would be short-sighted and outright silly. However, conservative Catholics may take issue with the fact that Arcand ingenuously knocks Jesus off his pedestal, demystifies him, and by doing so turns him into an human being - quite literally - reminding us that he was first and foremost an ordinary person-on-a-mission and that only many years after his death his name became synonymous with God. Thus, Arcand highlights a simple, basic, fact which nevertheless is often overlooked, especially by staunch followers of Christianity. And yet, Arcand never questions or doubts Jesus’ existence, nor that of God himself. He just invites us to think, to reflect, on our relationship with religion, and, for that matter, with God, who, more often than not, has become a commodity - and as such is on an equal footing with the world of media and advertising.

Canadian actor Lothaire Bluteau who shines in the leading role of Jesus

It becomes clear that Arcand’s problem is not so much with God, or Jesus, themselves, as with what they’re made into, namely by the Catholic Church, with its unwillingness to accept the fact that times have moved on, new ideas must be taken on board, and that change must be embraced if it doesn’t want to lose its following. The film addresses this issue by having Frere Leclerc happily having an affair with a woman, Constance, who has become part of Daniel’s stock of actors, yet when Constance suggests that Frere Leclerc might quit priesthood to move in with her, he declines. Needless to say, the question that automatically arises is why shouldn’t he have both? But aware of the consequences - to be defrocked, and thus stripped of his privileged status the Church, so dear to him - keep him from taking the plunge. It comes as no surprise then, that once Daniel and his troupe have modernised the Passion it is promptly rejected by Frere Leclerc and his superiors, regardless of the fact that the play is hugely successful with the public. Quite literally, the word - or gospel, as it were - of Jesus alias Daniel and his disciples is not understood. And although Arcand most probably intended to chiefly decry the notoriously conservative attitude of Quebec‘s Catholic Church, I would argue that outside Quebec things aren’t that different. Perversely, Leclerc himself appears to like the play, aware what Daniel intended to achieve, but, rather cynically and hypocritically, he dismisses it, suspecting that rocking the boat would mean disappointing and consequently losing, a part of his most ardent followers. Like with advertising, in religion people want to be deceived. As a result, the reactions to the play by some of the people - notably those of whom we know are working in the media and advertising world - are as arbitrary as if they were watching a commercial: no discrimination, no reflection or distinction - tears flow freely and whenever it’s convenient for in our fast-paced, media-obsessed environment, emotions only run skin-deep.

It is to Arcand’s credit, that in spite of all the solemnity of the subject-matter, Jesus de Montreal remains light as a feather throughout, in fact, is even hilariously funny at times. Perhaps, it is because rather than in spite, of this lightness, not to mention the sheer absence of any wagging finger, that by the end of film, we find ourselves deeply moved and overwhelmed by the evocative metaphors Arcand finds to put Jesus, his life and what he stood for, in a modern-day context, subtly pointing out that there is as little room for him now as there was then. Jesus de Montreal aptly ends on an unobtrusive, hauntingly beautiful note with two buskers chanting Bach while kneeling on the floor of a Montreal subway-station like Madonnas in mourning, above them a billboard of an actor, seen earlier in the film and who, like a Judas of sorts, betrays his profession by selling out to do commercials. And slowly, the camera tilts to the left into the big, dark nothingness of the subway-tunnel.

Quite simply - a gem, and most highly recommended!

Jesus de Montreal is available on DVD.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Invictus, Clint Eastwood, USA 2009

Watch the trailer to Eastwood's upcoming film, Invictus, which revolves around Nelson Mandela's life during the 1995 World Cup in South Africa. Invictus is based on John Carlin's book, Playing The Enemy: Nelson Mandela And The Game That Changed The Nation. Shot on a relatively modest budget of 50m $, Invictus stars Eastwood regular Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela, as well as Matt Damon and Eastwood's son, Scott.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Romy Schneider Season at the Goethe Institute London

A young and radiant Romy Scheider in Henri-Georges Clouzot's L'enfer (France 1964):

I don't seem to be able to get away from my favourite subject (or one of them, anyway): Romy Schneider. Having written about her film, Max et les ferailleurs (France 1971) yesterday - see post below - today I would like to draw your attention to the Romy Schneider Season that opened at the Goethe Institute London a few days ago:

For the full programme, go to:

One of the films shown is the part documentary, partly restored, L'enfer, by Henri-Georges Clouzot (France 1964), a project that was aborted at the time and which has been turned into a documentary and was received with critical acclaim at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

It is anyone's guess, of course, how it would have changed Schneider's career had Clouzot's film been completed. Prior to Clouzot, Schneider worked with Orson Welles, Otto Preminger, Lucchino Visconti - all first rate names in international cinema. After l'enfer, however, Schneider's career went into a temporary decline that lasted for several years, until it took off again with a vengeance in 1969, when Alain Delon had the bold idea to offer the part of Marianne in La piscine (Jacques Deray, France/ Italy 1969) to Schneider, his ex-lover.

Princesas, Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain 2005

Princasas, which I saw last night, was an amazing discovery, a simply wonderful film about a Madrid-based prostitute and her colleagues and their experiences. At times, Princasas almost feels like a documentary as the camera accompanies and observes Caye, Caren, and Pilar on their various love-for-sale exploits. Yet, the film carefully avoids voyeurism, nor is it ever exploitative. What it also does avoid is sentimentality, and given the film's topic de Aranoa - who since Las lunes al sol has been hailed as Spain's next big thing - would have had plenty of opportunity to go that way. The good news is, he didn't!

Princesas is ultimately a character study of Caye, played by the wonderful Candela Pena (All About My Mother), her life and background. Without pitying her and her lot, the film nevertheless leaves any doubt that it was the circumstances under which she was raised that turned her into a prostitute, and over the course of the film, she gradually comes to terms with her life and, particularly, her past.

Rather racist at the film's beginning, Caye and her Spanish colleagues look down on the prostitutes from Africa, eager to defend their terrain against them, the immigrants. It is clear that Caye's racism is based, first of all, on the fact that knowing that she's at the bottom of the social ladder, her African colleagues are even lower, thus making her, Caye, feel better about herself. The other reason why Caye hates and fights them is because they are taking away some of her customers, or so she thinks, especially since they're to be had for less than Caye and her Spanish colleagues. However, much to the distress of Pilar, eventually Caye and the hated (illegal) immigrant Zulema strike up a friendship, thus making Princesas also a truly wonderful, moving and authentic film about the triumph of friendship over love, or, as can happen sometimes, of the merging of the two.

Princesas is out on DVD.